Dispatch: Freedom of Expression
Why the new pro-breastfeeding laws may actually limit women’s rights. by Rebekah Curtis
May 18, 2009
Modern breastfeeding requires a lot more than breasts. There are the bizarre pillows and complicated clothes we must purchase, the machines we’re not supposed to find terrifying and BPA-free receptacles for what the machines extract, the leagues and coalitions for us to join. And then there are the parties in the mommy-blog comments we’re expected to attend whenever our congressional representatives pass another law about all of it.
Well, why not? Isn’t it great that breastfeeding is going mainstream, that people are finally noticing nursing? Aside from the fact that many of us would rather not be noticed when we’re feeding the baby, breastfeeding has been going mainstream for over fifty years. But it’s only in the last fifteen years that politicians have seen fit to get involved, when the state of Florida decriminalized public breastfeeding.
Right, decriminalized. Prior to 1993, breastfeeding in the sunshine in the Sunshine State may have been unnatural, lewd, lascivious, exposure of sexual organs, child sexual abuse, and/or harmful to minors. You can take your pick, because all the legislature did was state that as of the passage of the bill into law, public breastfeeding could not be prosecuted as any of those things. What a relief! Mothers back in ’92 couldn’t be sure if they were feeding their kids or molesting them.
There was a time in this country when a nursing mother could be ticketed for indecency while nursing her baby in her own parked car, but was it 1993 (or, in the case of unenlightened Massachusetts, last December)? American breastfeeding rates among mothers of newborns more than doubled between the founding of La Leche League in 1956, when they were around 20%, and 1990, when they were near 50%, even recovering from a decline throughout the ’70s. Somehow, breastfeeding propagated itself during that time without any laws saying it was okay.
Florida’s 1993 law inspired other legislatures. By now, most states have laws affirming that women either have a positive right to breastfeed in public, or cannot to be prosecuted for indecency if they do. State representatives love nothing more than feel-good, risk-free laws guaranteed to win them points with special interest groups. Public breastfeeding laws easily fit into this category, especially when laws claiming to protect public breastfeeding include no enforcement provision (most don’t). And maybe we could just let the politicians have their fun if several states hadn’t seen fit to improve on nature.
For example, here’s the how the Missouri state legislature went about protecting public breastfeeding: A mother may, with as much discretion as possible, breastfeed her child in any public or private location where the mother is otherwise authorized to be. (R.S.Mo. 191.918) Print out this card for the next time you’re publicly breastfeeding in Missouri and someone hassles you about it. Go on, educate that benighted soul. Wait – she says you’re not using as much discretion as possible? Well, who’s to say which of you is right?
Thanks a lot, Missouri. I hope this law included funding to cover my Motherwear and Bebe au Lait bills. Will that be enough discretion? Maybe we should just go sit in the bathroom. It’s a public bathroom, so I’m allowed to nurse the baby there. With as much discretion as possible, obviously. The North Dakota state legislature, following Missouri’s lead, has a bill in the works which would ostensibly protect nursing in public as long as mothers “act in a discreet and modest manner.” (Georgia’s 1999 public breastfeeding law also included a “discreet and modest” provision, but a 2002 amendment struck the language.)